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Jolly Night at the Opera

June 7, 2003

Juan Diego Flórez (Don Ramiro)
Mika Shigematsu (Cenerentola)

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By Olivia Stapp

Jean Pierre Ponnelle's brilliant 1969 production of La Cenerentola (Cinderella) was taken out of storage for the third time and presented yesterday at the San Francisco Opera. Time has not depleted its irresistible visual wit and buoyancy. The sepia-colored sets, delicately painted in the style of the 18th century stage designer Galli-Bebbiena, famous for his introduction of architectural opulence and false perspective in the theater, are an indication of Ponnelle's cultural richness and his ability to synthesize 300 years of tradition. The action onstage under the able direction of Grisha Asagaroff bristles with the zaniness of a kind of neo-commedia dell‘arte. Fast-paced sight gags (like the ever-necessary chamber pot), and the hilariously overdrawn characters, kicking up their heels, freezing in astonishment, moving in unison, crumpling to the floor, tangling themselves into a huge knot, are some of the titillating reminders of the physicality of this almost forgotten comedic art. The entire cast was masterful on stage: their timing, precision and coordination impressive.

Along with the high performance demands of this kind of theatrical farce, the cast also dealt with the exacting claims of Rossini's music with varying degrees of success. Rossini fioritura (complex ornamentation and embellishment) — miles and miles of it in La Cenerentola, present in every aria and ensemble — flies up and down into the extremes of vocal extension, and requires lightness and agility without loss of vocal quality.

With a multi-gifted singer like tenor Juan Diego Flórez (Don Ramiro) on stage, this feat becomes miraculous. He is the first coloratura (agility) tenor in recent memory who approaches this style of music with full-voiced animal vigor and does not use lightened falsetto sound in the extreme high tones. His music-making is authentically idiomatic and confident. Plus, he has an attractive youthful presence and natural elegance. There is an extra “cruise” or carrying quality in his voice that fills the auditorium with brilliance and beauty. In the presence of this outstanding singer the rest of the cast impressed more by virtue of their acting skills.

Good for the ladies

Sandra De Athos (Clorinda) and Catherine Cook (Tisbe) portrayed Cinderella's shrewish sisters with delightful malice. Their outlandish mimicry never lagged and added to the evening's enjoyment. Catherine Cook turned in a consistently well sung performance, whilst more volume was needed in the case of Sandra De Athos.

The foppish Dandini of Daniel Belcher, the first valet to the prince, was silly and wonderful. His disguise as prince allowed him to bound around on stage most preposterously, astounding the prince himself with his mockery of the excesses of the aristocracy. A very accomplished and disciplined acting job indeed. Chaplinesque. But here again, the vocalism demanded was not met. He needed more sound, more projection.

Kevin Glavin gave an ingenious interpretation of Don Magnifico — pompous, venal, blustery and not too smart. He was especially amusing in the drinking scene with the men's chorus, where after having tasted thirty different wines, he mimes just barely being able to keep his balance. Whether in a patter or a tirade aria, he sang with a robustly satisfying voice. Alidoro, the prince's tutor, was played by Eike Wilm Schulte. He is a strong presence onstage and sang well, albeit in a germanic style and with careless Italian.

An ill-fitting shoe

Mika Shigematsu, in the title role of Cenerentola, may have the facile mechanism needed to negotiate the complex coloratura, but was barely audible and had pitch inaccuracies a great deal of the time. She seemed unable to find her way vocally on opening night. Especially in this Rossini work, lively vocalism from the leading lady is essential, and it simply was not there. Without this vocally authoritative central figure firmly present, the opera as a whole did not cohere musically.

Patrick Summers' conducting was generally skillful and crisp, but there were occasional mishaps in the orchestra rendering the musical side slightly under par.

The evening as a whole was innocently lighthearted, rambunctiously funny, and beautifully executed on stage. The audience responded with warm applause and bravos. This would be a wonderful starter opera for your children or grandchildren.

There is a production side note. During the second act there is a rainstorm with real water on stage. Arthur Bloomfield in his book about the San Francisco Opera states that when pricing this in 1969, “originally estimated at a lamentable $2000 cost, the rain effect ultimately came in for about $50.” Apparently someone backstage figured out that a soaker hose with more holes in it would do the trick. Who can imagine anything in any theater today costing just $50?

(Olivia Stapp is an opera director, formerly artistic director of Festival Opera (1995-2001), and has had a major international career as a soprano.)

©2003 Olivia Stapp, all rights reserved